Stop Letting the Future Freak You Out
“If there’s one thing that’s certain… it’s uncertainty.” Stephen Covey
Are you stressed about the future? I am. I think about it a lot. All the time actually. I used to never think about it. I couldn’t tell you when I planned on eating my next meal in my early twenties. Now thirty, I find myself with spreadsheets upon spreadsheets trying to predict when my student loans will be paid off, when my wife’s student loans will be paid off, when my two-year-old daughter’s student loans will be paid off… she’s 3 years out from starting kindergarten. The truth is, we were made to worry about the future, seriously it’s in our DNA.
Humans have an amazing ability that separates us from all other living beings, it’s called an imagination. We’re actually thought to be the only species that has this gift. It’s a blessing and a curse really, to be able to imagine the future. On the one hand, our ancestors were able to think, “I’d better not go to the watering-hole tonight… I imagine there might be a sabertooth tiger there,” which is a useful ability to have in regards to keeping your species alive and uneaten. But here we are, thousands of years down the road, with the same gift. Fortunately for most of us, finding a watering hole or getting attacked by a sabertooth tiger is not at the top of our worry list. Unfortunately for all of us however, that same ability never shut off in our brains. We’ve simply replaced sabertooth tigers at night with something far more terrifying, a future of endless possibilities. Bankruptcy, sickness, friends that don’t like us, a stock market crash, a pandemic that shuts down the economy… you get it. If left to our own devices, we can create thousands of future scenarios.
On a personal level, the ability to confront the future is one of several ingredients to a happy life. In business it’s the difference between being a leader and a contributor. I truly believe the only thing that separates a leader, executive, manager, whatever the title is, from a contributor, contractor, hourly worker, is the ability and desire to be comfortable with uncertainty. More on the business side later. Today we are talking about us as people.
As I mentioned I’m in this right now. Student debt, a toddler with another on the way, a mortgage, high cholesterol and 1,000 other variables that affect what the next 40 years could look like. The below principles have risen to the top as helpful steps in my own life to find joy in the journey, create a hopeful future and have allowed me (at least this year anyway) to give my attention to where it matters most, the present. So strap in, I hope this is helpful!
Establish Worst-Case Scenario
Truth be told, my wife hates this first step. When doubts and fears creep into our finances, or unknowns enter into the equation about work or new opportunities that arise, the roller coaster of fear typically comes to a screeching halt when we are able to take a moment and clearly define what “worst case” actually looks like. Typically, rock bottom is not as bad as you thought it was. Great example, “What if I lose my job in this COVID environment?” A terrifying question that left unaddressed could bring on an endless onslaught of worry. However, the second you jump in and define what that means for you and your family, hopefully the pit is a little less deep than you thought it was. We have to sell our house, bummer, but not the end of the world. We don’t get to eat organic anymore, one wife’s nightmare is a husband’s dream come true. Student loans take a little bit longer to be paid off, again a bummer but not a life ender. No one died, no one went to jail and in the end, we are still a family. I dare you to let yourself define the worst-case scenario and make peace with it. It’s the first step into learning to live in the moment, present and focused on what matters.
Quantify, Quantify, Quantify
I’m a nerd, I love numbers and typically tend to hate feelings. At work, this is a great skill to have. Anything that “feels” like a big deal or a fire to put out or an apocalypse happening can quickly be cut down to size with a few simple questions working to quantify what is going on. I used to work in a call center, this was a huge skill to have in answering calls from angry customers all day. “Customers are freaking out! This issue is blowing up! We’ve got a disaster on our hands.” All statements made as a byproduct of feeling. One customer was angry, therefore all customers must be angry. Having the ability to quantify in a world of this type of chaos is invaluable. How many customers? 1? 10? A million? Putting numbers to anxiety can help a lot in facing the future head-on and living in the moment.
Life can feel overwhelming sometimes. Bills, the mortgage, debt. So many stresses that have very quantifiable qualities. How much does it cost you to live for a month? How much does it cost you to live for a year? How many years will it actually take me to pay this off if I put my mind to it? All of the sudden if you can put numbers to the challenges you face, the stress and anxiety that was infinite, in tandem with the infinite amount of possibilities, is now limited and quantifiable and has a target to it. Stressed about something, in the future, put a number to it, it’s a way to anchor down the situation and tie it to reality, which is typically much less daunting than the scenarios we imagine.
Give Yourself Permission to Think About the Future… But in Small Doses
This last principle is something I’m still working on. I used to spend whole weekends trying to plot out different forecasts of how quickly my wife and I could pay off our cars, our house, be debt-free, etc. The reality is, some of that thinking was good and produced actionable results that impacted our future for the better. “Wow, if we just put a little more money into our car payments, we’ll pay them off in half the time, which means our student loans could be paid off earlier, which means our house could be paid off earlier…” You get it. The reality is however, those thoughts came in the span of an hour tops, the rest of the time worrying, scenario building, contingency planning, did nothing. It wasn’t until a friend challenged me to put a cap on how much time I spent planning for the future. For me this meant once a month, I sit down with my spreadsheets, dive in, see if any insights jump out, track our progress as a family towards our goals, and shut it down. Time to get back to living, to watching my daughter run, to laughing with my wife, to eating great food together, to being generous and to just being in general!
I’m not saying these methods are perfect. This is a subject I expect to wrestle with for most of my life. After all, imagination is a gift that keeps on giving. But, if you can become one of the few people that gets excited about looking into the future, making peace with worst-case scenarios, quantifying outcomes and stepping off the treadmill of constant worry, look out, companies, governments, churches and all humans in between are looking for someone like this to lead them. Might as well be you!